Explainer: The Facts About Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise in New Jersey

Scott Gurian | September 2, 2014 | Explainer
By the end of the century, the Garden State's current coast could be under more than three feet of water

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Scientists have known about climate change ever since Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized in 1895 that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect surface temperatures on the planet. Air monitors at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii have also confirmed that CO2 in the atmosphere has increased over the past half century. And historical measurements taken here in New Jersey confirm global findings that sea levels are rising while temperatures are increasing.

The occurrence of climate change is at this point beyond question, says the overwhelming majority of scientists and environmentalists. But how bad will it be, how quickly will it happen, and what can we do about it? Here’s a summary of what’s known and of the likely impacts in the Garden State.

What We Know

Records going back over a hundred years in Atlantic City and for a number of decades in Sandy Hook and along the Delaware Bay offer evidence that sea levels continue to rise in New Jersey, by about 3.5 millimeters per year on the bay and nearly 4 millimeters annually along the coast. Overall, the ocean has risen 16 inches in Atlantic City since the start of recordkeeping, and climate models predict it could rise three-and-a-half feet or more by the end of the century. This is compounded by the fact that the Jersey Shore is slowly sinking due to natural subsidence of the land. That will greatly increase the possibility of coastal flooding, even without more severe storms like Sandy.

It’s also thought that heavy precipitation during extreme, one-day storms could become more common, and hurricanes will probably increase in strength.

Meanwhile, temperatures continue to rise. The warmest year on record in New Jersey was 2012, and the three warmest summers in history have occurred since 2005. Record high temperatures and heat waves are expected to increase in the coming decades.

What This Means

A recent Rutgers analysis found that the percentage of New Jersey’s coastline with significant exposure to flooding could increase 14 percent by the end of the century. That would expose an additional 200,000 people and 90 more miles of major roads, as well as additional critical facilities. It could also lead to billions of dollars in property damage.

The predictions are particularly bad news for some waterfront communities like the East Ferry/Ironbound section of Newark. Researchers found that increased flooding in the city could put an additional 2,000 residents and 650 businesses at risk, as well as lead to problems at the area’s hundreds of contaminated sites.

Among the other expected impacts of climate change in New Jersey are more power outages, decreased crop yields, greater risks of wildfires and droughts, public health problems relating to increased heat, and threats to the tourism industry.

What We’re Doing About It

In light of these predictions, many environmental and planning advocates think New Jersey isn’t doing enough to prepare for the future. They’ve been critical of the Christie administration’s defunding of the Department of Environmental Protection Office of Climate Change and Energy and its withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Critics point out that New Jersey is the only state on the East Coast that neither has nor is actively preparing a statewide climate-change adaptation strategy. More recently, they’ve also raised concerns about proposed new rules for coastal construction, which they fear could allow for increased development in high-risk areas.

The Christie administration points to progress it’s made on home elevations and buyouts as evidence that it is concerned about climate change and is taking steps to tackle the issue. Responding to critics who’ve said the administration has not given enough consideration to the potential for future severe storms in its rush to recover from Sandy, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said last November that the governor “wants to build quickly, build with the right resiliency now, but also have a long-term game plan. There’s a short-term challenge, and there’s a long-term challenge,” he added. “We felt we met both of those at the same time.”

For more info, visit NJADAPT, a portal to Rutgers University’s New Jersey climate science and impacts data.